On June 16 at 9 p.m., tune in to WFYI to see the premiere of Arab Indianapolis: A Hidden History to discover the intriguing and broad impact of Arab Americans in Central Indiana. To learn more about the making of the film, WFYI’s Kirsten Eamon-Shine discussed the documentary with the co-writer and film narrator, Edward E. Curtis IV.
What inspired you to work on this topic?
As I explain in the film, I was upset in 2015 when a few Hoosiers opposed the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the state. People like my great-grandparents, who came from Syria and Lebanon, had been settling in the Midwest since the 1800s. We are not new or foreign here.
I felt called to claim our stake here by telling the stories of our Arab Hoosier ancestors, and with the help of a couple dozen Arab Americans and IUPUI faculty and students, I founded the Arab Indianapolis community history project. So far, we have written a book, created an Arab American heritage trail, and now we have our own documentary.
What do you think will most surprise viewers in the film?
I think most people don't know that our community got its start in a neighborhood now buried underneath Lucas Oil Stadium. The film recreates what life was like there for the hundreds of Arabs who made their home on Willard Street in the late 1800s. The “Syrian quarter,” as it was called, was well-known to people in Indianapolis then, but somehow later we forgot about it.
I also think viewers will be surprised that the first statewide Arab American office holder—a woman named Helen Corey — was elected in the 1960s, about four decades before Mitch Daniels, the grandson of Syrian immigrants, became the state’s governor.
The film has many more of these moments: from Monument Circle to the War Memorials, Arsenal Tech High School, and St. Vincent’s Hospital, it turns out that Arab Americans have been right at the heart of Indianapolis’ most iconic institutions.
Can you share more about the team that worked on this film?
This is the first film I have ever made, so I relied on some of Indianapolis’ best filmmaking professionals to help me make it. To be honest, I wouldn’t have even thought of making the film if the director of photography, Vinnie Manganello, hadn’t suggested it. Vinnie connected me to Becky Fisher, the film’s producer and director. Becky was the ringleader of a complex project that engaged lots of community members, nine locations around town, a crew of up to ten people, and even a cooking scene.
I was so impressed by the work of our local filmmaking community: Kent Vernon’s sound editing, animation by Jessica Dunn, videography by Andy Young, field audio by Bob Haggard and Zach Thorpe, lighting by Micah Gerber, Adam Rockhill and Nate Savidge, location coordination by Holly Fraser, and food styling by Allison Douglass. The most surprising aspect of the filming process was the hair and makeup by Jennifer Bly-Lake, Nikki Brown and Kim Connolly. I have heard that people sometimes don’t look as good on camera as they do in real life. But my spouse thought that the make-up artists made me look ten years younger!
I have written and edited over a million words as a professor, but I had never written a film script before. Veteran producer Graham Judd mentored me on how to do it, and Becky wrote a number of the film’s transitions. Cory Fisher then put the whole film together in editing — I am not sure how he managed to do it, but he even recreated the dramatic moment when Arab American service member Raphael George was shot down in a World War II air battle over Europe.
This film is about the “hidden history” of Arab Americans in this community. If someone wanted to connect more closely with the Arab community today, where would you suggest they start?
So, maybe the best place to begin is not the heart, but the stomach! In the film Indiana State Senator Fady Qaddoura and Dr. Eyas Raddad point out that food is often the ice-breaker that helps Arab and non-Arab people connect. That’s one of the reasons I decided to end the film with a cooking scene where Hiba Alalami, Samia Alajlouni and I roll grape leaves together.
Today, people from Indianapolis can find nearly any style of Arab food they might like to eat in over a dozen restaurants and groceries throughout the city. Moroccan, Egyptian, Palestinian, Jordanian, Yemeni, Syrian, Lebanese, the Arabian Gulf — they are all here. (WFYI: Check out some of the dishes shared by Detroit's Syrian and Lebanese cooks on No Passport Required.)
How do you think Arab American experiences relate to the broader Midwestern and American experiences?
In a lot of ways, the Arab American experience is the Midwestern and American experience. From the story of immigration before World War I to the struggle for assimilation during the rise of Indiana Klan in the 1920s, the presence of our relatively small community demands an answer to an essential question: is America the land of the free for all or just some? Though Hoosiers of Arab descent like Bill Nasser and Mitch Daniels achieved fantastic success, the challenges of more recent Arab immigrants and refugees — so vital to our economy and society — speak to ongoing problems of racism, xenophobia and religious bias. The film asks us to learn from the past so we can imagine a future that is more positive for all the people of the heartland and this country.
When you tune in to WFYI, what are some of your favorite programs?
I have to confess, my whole family still watches Mister Rogers on Saturday mornings. The Saturday morning line-up is great because it reflects the diversity of our family and many other families. It’s especially important to us that our 11-year-old sees other children who use wheelchairs.
When it’s time for more adult offerings, I watch the cooking shows — you are going to see some of that in the film’s kitchen scene — as well as documentaries and dramas.